Greek shipper pleads guilty to smuggling Iranian crude oil and will pay $2.4 million fine

Sep 6, 2023, 5:43 PM | Updated: 6:10 pm

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — A Greek shipper has pleaded guilty to a charge over it smuggling sanctioned Iranian crude oil and agreed to pay a $2.4 million fine, U.S. federal court papers seen Thursday by The Associated Press show.

Empire Navigation agreed to be put on corporate probation under the plea agreement, according to the federal court filings.

The charge stems from the saga over the oil tanker Suez Rajan, which has become mired in the wider tensions between the U.S. and the Islamic Republic even as Tehran and Washington work toward a trade of billions of dollars in frozen Iranian assets in South Korea for the release of five Iranian Americans held in Tehran. Iran has been trying to evade sanctions and continue selling its oil abroad, while the U.S. and its allies have been seizing cargoes since 2019 after the country’s nuclear deal allowing the trade collapsed.

The saga over the Suez Rajan began in February 2022, when the group United Against Nuclear Iran said it suspected the tanker carried oil from Iran’s Khargh Island, its main oil distribution terminal in the Persian Gulf.

For months, the ship sat in the South China Sea off the northeast coast of Singapore before suddenly sailing for the Gulf of Mexico without explanation. The vessel discharged its cargo to another tanker, which released its oil in Houston, Texas, in recent days. The court documents seen Thursday confirm the U.S. government seized the oil.

A lawyer for Empire Navigation, Apostolos Tourkantonis, pleaded guilty to a single charge of violating the sanctions on Iran. Empire, based in Athens, Greece, did not immediately respond to a request for comment early Thursday.

Since the Suez Rajan headed for America, Iran has seized two tankers near the Strait of Hormuz, including one with cargo for U.S. oil major Chevron Corp. In July, the top commander of the Revolutionary Guard’s naval arm threatened further action against anyone offloading the Suez Rajan, with state media linking the recent seizures to the cargo’s fate.

Iran has continued to make threats over the seizure and summoned a Swiss diplomat in Tehran to express its anger. Switzerland has looked after U.S. interests in Iran since the 1979 U.S. Embassy takeover and hostage crisis.

Iran’s mission to the United Nations did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, Iran regained the ability to sell oil openly on the international market. But in 2018, then-President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from the accord and reimposed American sanctions. That slammed the door on much of Iran’s lucrative crude oil trade, a major engine for its economy and its government. It also began a cat-and-mouse hunt for Iranian oil cargo — as well as series of escalating attacks attributed to Iran since 2019.

The delay in offloading the Suez Rajan’s cargo had become a political issue as well for the Biden administration as the ship had sat for months in the Gulf of Mexico, possibly due to companies being worried about the threat from Iran.

The U.S. Navy has increased its presence steadily in recent weeks in the Mideast, sending the troop-and-aircraft-carrying USS Bataan through the Strait of Hormuz and considering putting armed personnel on commercial ships traveling through the strait to stop Iran from seizing additional ships.

Late Wednesday, the U.S. put out an updated warning to shippers traveling through the Mideast, warning: “Commercial vessels transiting through the Persian Gulf, Strait of Hormuz and Gulf of Oman continue to be illegally boarded and detained or seized by Iranian forces.”


Find more AP coverage of the Middle East at


Simone Biles of the United States prepares to practice during a gymnastics training session at Berc...

Associated Press

US viewers’ Olympics interest is down, poll finds, except for Simone Biles

PARIS (AP) — On the heels of low ratings for the coronavirus pandemic-marred Tokyo and Beijing Olympics, Paris may not do much better among U.S. viewers, a new poll from Gallup released Thursday found. Simone Biles and women’s gymnastics are poised to be a bright spot, with those surveyed selecting it as their most anticipated […]

2 hours ago

FILE - Australia's Patty Mills (5) reacts as time runs down against Slovenia during the men's bronz...

Associated Press

Patty Mills has played his best ball for Australia. He’s back to take on a stacked Olympic field

MARCQ-EN-BAROEUL, France (AP) — Patty Mills kept putting up shots after Australia finished a two-hour practice at a training facility not far from where it will open the Paris Olympics basketball tournament Saturday against Spain. “OK, I’m good,” Mills said after watching one last corner 3-pointer fall through the net. Mills knows the value that […]

3 hours ago

FILE - A US F-35 fighter jet performs during the opening day of the Dubai Air Show, United Arab Emi...

Associated Press

Athens signs deal to buy 20 US-made F-35 jets in major military overhaul

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Greece formally approved an offer to buy 20 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters from the United States as part of a major defense overhaul, government officials said Thursday. “The letter of acceptance for the F-35s has been signed and sent to the United States,” Defense Minister Nikos Dendias said while visiting a […]

5 hours ago

Associated Press

Stock market today: Global shares tumble after a wipeout on Wall Street as Big Tech retreats

TOKYO (AP) — Global shares retreated on Thursday, with Tokyo’s benchmark losing more than 1,300 points at one point and closing down more than 3%, as pessimism set in over a nose-dive on Wall Street. France’s CAC 40 slipped 1.5% in early trading to 7,400.08. Germany’s DAX fell 1.2% to 18,161.70, while Britain’s FTSE 100 […]

10 hours ago

Associated Press

NORAD says it tracked Chinese and Russian military planes off Alaska

BEIJING (AP) — Two Chinese and two Russian military planes were tracked flying over international waters near Alaska and U.S. and Canadian fighter jets were sent up in response, their joint aerospace command said. The Chinese and Russian military activity Wednesday was not seen as a threat, the North American Aerospace Defense Command, known as […]

14 hours ago

FILE - Coco Gauff of the U.S. plays a shot against Poland's Iga Swiatek during their semifinal matc...

Associated Press

Coco Gauff to be female flag bearer for US team at Olympic opening ceremony, joining LeBron James

PARIS (AP) — Tennis star Coco Gauff will join LeBron James as a flag bearer for the US Olympic team at Friday’s opening ceremony. Gauff, the reigning US Open champion, is set to make her Olympic debut and will be the first tennis athlete to carry the US flag. She and James were chosen by […]

1 day ago

Greek shipper pleads guilty to smuggling Iranian crude oil and will pay $2.4 million fine